Marketers know it as the paradox of choice: When presented with too many alternatives, consumers may get stuck analyzing which product is best—and perhaps choose none at all. Will green-car shoppers get caught in such a quagmire with the Honda Clarity lineup?
With all three—the Honda Clarity fuel cell, the Clarity plug-in hybrid, and the Clarity electric, which was recently made available for us to drive briefly at an event at Honda’s RD facility in Tochigi, Japan, and then again in Portland, Oregon—we couldn’t help wonder whether U.S. consumers will be stymied by choice. With each version possessing distinct strengths and weaknesses, it’s easy to get mired in decision paralysis.
The truth is that shoppers are unlikely ever to see all three versions side by side at a dealership—except maybe in the Los Angeles or San Francisco markets near a fledgling, highly subsidized hydrogen fueling infrastructure.
The Clarity electric is also limited—not by refueling infrastructure; your home wiring should work just fine—but by a surprisingly short driving range and a small battery pack as well as by Honda’s decision to offer this version only in California and Oregon, where automakers need to satisfy zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) credit requirements. Its EPA-rated range is just 89 miles from a 25.5-kWh battery. CCS (Combo) fast charging will be standard on the Clarity, though, which will make it easy to recover 80 percent of a full charge within 30 minutes.
Plug-In Clarity: 42 (Almost) All-Electric Miles
Meanwhile, Honda estimates that the Clarity plug-in hybrid will be rated at 105 MPGe and cover 42 miles on battery power or get a combined 42 mpg when it has used up that charge. In theory, that means the plug-in hybrid is the one that hits the sweet spot between the pure EV and the long-distance-capable traditional hybrid. But it’s also the one that, from the driver’s seat, feels a bit like a technological patchwork.
Although you can preserve battery charge to use when you want, there’s no way to lock out the gasoline engine as there is in the Chevrolet Volt and the Toyota Prius Prime, and the 1.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine is necessary to run as an onboard generator during acceleration and to extract the most electric-motor zip from this vehicle. Press the accelerator deep into its travel, and even if you have adequate plug-in charge, the four-cylinder awakens and becomes a distant but coarse—and perhaps unwanted—soundtrack.
In the plug-in hybrid, if you want to stick to all-electric operation, you need to select Econ mode, which keeps the gasoline engine off as long as you have plug-in charge remaining and don’t push past that rather pronounced accelerator detent. There’s no way to select a completely electric operation, confirmed Kiyoshi Shimizu, chief engineer for the Clarity lineup, because the car’s power systems can’t deliver the model’s full 181 horsepower with only the battery pack; without the gasoline engine running, maximum power from the motor system is only 121 horsepower. Once the engine is on, it relies on the secondary motor/generator, driven by the engine, to make up the difference.
That said, emissions-free highway cruising is possible; the plug-in hybrid can still reach 100 mph if you go easy and don’t push through the accelerator detent. One thing that might curb electric driving in the plug-in is a cold snap. The Clarity electric has a single water-cooling system that covers the battery pack, power electronics, and motor, and while all Clarity models have resistive heating, in the Clarity electric it’s supplemented by a heat pump. Plug-in models also get an electric-powered engine-heat-based system that works as the primary heat source when the engine is running; Honda requires it to be run at cold temperatures (below 14 degrees F).
Although Honda hasn’t yet released full specs for the Clarity electric or Clarity plug-in hybrid, it has revealed power and torque figures for both. The Clarity electric, with a single-motor system, makes 161 horsepower and 221 lb-ft, while the heavier Clarity plug-in hybrid, with a two-motor system and a version of the Honda Accord Hybrid’s i-MMD hybrid system, incorporates a 1.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine, and produces 181 horsepower and 232 lb-ft.
Gasoline, Hydrogen, or Electric: Same Interface
Each of the Clarity models has a nearly identical driving interface, and the same three driving modes—Normal, Econ, and Sport. Sport mode has quickened accelerator response and noticeably more regenerative braking. In driving all three Clarity models through a modest handling course between two straightaways, on which we were limited to 75 mph, we found acceleration performance of all three to be about the same (we’ve tested the Clarity fuel cell at 8.1 seconds to 60 mph); but partly because of the plug-in hybrid’s delayed full-throttle response and the coarse cut-in of the gasoline engine, it was the least enjoyable.
The three models are calibrated about the same for regenerative braking. Brake blending as you approach a stoplight is superbly smooth, but at higher speeds we expected more regenerative action when we lifted off the accelerator. The Clarity electric lets you ramp up the regen with a tug of a steering-wheel paddle, but it still doesn’t offer enough for mountain roads or the so-called one-pedal driving that many EV fans prefer.
Asked about the decision to make the Clarity electric’s range so short, at a time when few EVs with less than 100 miles of range remain, Honda cites a figure that three-quarters of Los Angeles drivers go less than 42 miles daily. To pack more capacity at current cell-energy densities, would mean raising (or moving) the rear-seat position. Unlike many other electrified vehicles, the Clarity wasn’t designed to house batteries under the floor—because it helps maximize passenger space and keep the roofline low for a better coefficient of drag. Although this isn’t an Accord-sized back seat in terms of headroom.
The plug-in hybrid has the most usable trunk shape; in the electric and fuel cell, there’s a more articulated, multi-tiered trunk floor that some will see as getting in the way of weekend grocery runs. Although Honda made clear that the Clarity electric and plug-in hybrid were in pre-production forms as we drove them, we’re extremely impressed with the interior appointments and trim in all three versions—although the Clarity electric, as presented, felt more austere inside than the others.
- Comparison Test: 2017 Honda Clarity vs. 2016 Toyota Mirai
- Waiting for Clarity: Is an 80-Mile Range Enough for Honda’s Electric Car?
- Honda Clarity: Reviews, Pricing, Related News
Honda says that the plug-in hybrid, not yet priced, will be available nationwide. For the Clarity electric, which becomes available in August, Honda has announced a $269-per-month lease price—for a 36-month term, with $1730 down. That includes the $7500 federal EV tax credit, claimed by Honda Financial Services, but California customers qualify for an additional $2500 Clean Vehicle Rebate. The Clarity fuel cell is only available in California, and as part of a $369-per-month lease deal it includes free refueling.
Globally, the Clarity electric will be sold only in the U.S., Canada, and Japan, while Honda intends to sell both the Clarity plug-in hybrid and Clarity fuel cell versions in additional markets, including Europe.
Although these are strictly first impressions, it’s the Clarity electric and Clarity fuel cell that are more charming and better driving, because they feel consistent and predictable. We’ll see which way buyers lean when presented with Honda’s green trio.